Grey warriors lay strewn across the rough stone floor of the Tunnicliffe wine cellar, their prone forms intermingled with heaps of empty green bottles which clinked and rolled with every drunken, slurred motion of the warriors’ limbs. Inane smiles were plastered on the faces of most of the warriors, although one or two, who had not been able to keep gallons of centuries-old wine in their stomachs for too long, were looking decidedly unhappier. The occasional shards of broken glass shimmered like tiny stars in the large pools of spilt wine which formed deep shadows in the gloom of the cellars, shadows which joined with the flickering darkness surrounding each of the inebriated undead. Even the most casual observer could deduce that this had been one hell of a party.
Maxwell, Lydia and Crichton, however, were not casual observers. On the contrary, for them, the party atmosphere had been somewhat disturbed by the necessity of their manic flight away from a group of bloodthirsty warriors intent on ending their lives in the most violent ways possible, and after finding a method to combat these monsters the trio were intent on repaying the favour with Wonga-high levels of interest. The speed and strength of the hellish grey creatures would, usually, have provided a considerable barrier to these intentions, but happily for the courageous threesome, these advantages had been impaired by the insidious influence of alcohol, which can ruin even the most successful afterlives. This is not to imply that the fight would be one-sided; the warriors were still dangerous opponents and vastly outnumbered our three heroes, yet the consumption of the majority of the Tunnicliffe’s ample wine stores had evened up the competition somewhat, so that, when the trio hurtled down into the cellars, frantically hurling their missiles at all and sundry, they were not summarily dispatched but instead accounted for about half of the creatures before any of them had realised what was happening.
The element of surprise, however, lasts for slightly less time than an eager virgin, and soon the battle between the living and the dead was fully joined. Lydia, Crichton and Maxwell weaved through the throng of struggling, alcohol-imbued bodies, frantically dodging the powerful swings of grey fists, knowing that any direct hit was liable to severely incapacitate them, and at every opportunity lashed out with their divinely anointed weaponry, breaking bottles on limbs, torsos and heads and sending their owners back to the hells that spawned them. It was akin to a brawl in a Northern bar, but with a slightly cleaner floor.
Lydia’s sleeve was torn clean off as she wrenched herself from the grasp of a long-dead warrior, Crichton smashing a bottle over its head as it stumbled, pulled off-balance; Lydia returned the favour, taking out a warrior behind Crichton who was about to deliver a crushing blow to the butler’s immaculately coiffeured head; Maxwell was slightly too slow in avoiding the attack of another warrior, whose sharp and dirty nails carved out a scar on the Reverend’s cheek before dissolving into dust as Maxwell retaliated with a wild swipe of a water-filled wine bottle. Panting, dishevelled, the trio fought as hard as they could, forcing back the creatures who had defiled the Tunnicliffe’s home and, judging by some of the rooms they’d passed as they made their way to the scene of the fight, quite a lot of the Tunnicliffe’s furniture, the fiends apparently not familiar with the difference between a caquetoire and a commode. Holy water made dark patterns in the dust of the floor, dust that was being augmented by the rapidly decomposing bodies of the fallen warriors; and then, with a last smash of breaking glass and a cut-off shriek of pain, it was over. The trio stood, breathing heavily, in the centre of the floor, surrounded by broken glass and piles of off-white dirt, the last of their supply of holy water spent, but their enemies vanquished. Scarcely daring to believe their victory, they straightened up, shoulders relaxing, and began to smile at one another.
Their smiles proved to be short-lived, disappearing from their faces as a terrifying apparition appeared, shrieking, in the cellar entrance, its long, dishevelled hair playing wildly about its head, crimson liquid running from its mouth, clothes muddy and torn. The trio whirled around, ready to fly into battle once more, but were shocked into stillness by the swaying, crazed-looking figure in the doorway. Then Lydia flung herself forward, arms outstretched, and seized it around the middle.
“Louise! Sister, you’re alive!” she shouted gleefully, before burying her face in Louise’s shoulder.
Louise, for it was she, did not seem to notice her sister’s embrace at first. “Where,” she said, enunciating each syllable slowly and carefully, “has all the wine gone?”
Lydia looked up at her, a slight frown passing over her face. “Sister, you’ve never drunk wine before, what is...”
She was cut off before she could finish her sentence. “I desire more wine!” Louise announced, disengaging herself from Lydia’s arms and taking an uncertain step towards Crichton, who stared at her inscrutably, and Maxwell, who stared with far more obvious puzzlement. “And why has my party stopped?” Louise demanded. Lydia tried to grab at her arm, but Louise swayed away, staggering a little from the force of her movement. Her foot caught one of the few wine bottles that had remained intact during the fight and she fell, feet flying up into the air. She began to make strange spluttering noises.
“She’s choking! Oh, Louise, what have they done to you?” Lydia cried, hurrying forward to cradle her sister in her arms. She clasped Louise’s head in her arms as her sister shook on the floor, still making those strange spluttering noises; then Lydia realised her sister was not choking, but laughing. She had never seen her sister laugh before.
“Lighten up, dear!” Louise cackled. She tried to rise to her feet but couldn’t quite manage it; as she fell back, laughing even harder, an empty wine bottle slid from her sleeve and smashed on the floor, adding to the debris of the battle. The concern vanished from Lydia's face, and she left her drunken sister to giggle on the floor as she stood up. Maxwell walked over to her, extending his arm for her to take.
“It’s over,” he said, smiling. “Let’s wait until she calms down a tad, then Crichton and I will help her upstairs and we can all get some well-earned rest. Right, Crichton?”
Crichton nodded, smartly. “Certainly, sir.” He took a half step towards the reverend.
Lord Achan appeared from the shadows behind the butler and, before he had a chance to turn, dealt him a tremendous blow that flung him across the room. He hit the wall with a sickening crunch and slid, unmoving, to the floor.
There was a moment of perfect stillness as Achan’s red eyes burned out of the darkness at the speechless Maxwell and Lydia, with Louise still incongruously giggling on the floor; then the undead lord leapt across the room, shadows flying out behind him like a ragged cloak, and landed directly in front of Maxwell, unleashing another devastating blow with his right fist.
A pool of spilt wine saved Maxwell’s life. As Achan had sprung towards him, he had taken an involuntary step back, his foot slipping in the puddle of liquid, and he stumbled, Achan’s fist flying through the air where his head had been mere milliseconds before and missing him by inches. He rolled as he hit the ground, and Achan’s left fist cracked the stone where he had so briefly lain; the Reverend’s hand came up holding a bottle, and he flung it at the monstrous figure attempting to deprive him of his life. It smashed into his chest, coating him with liquid. The fiend stepped back a pace, eyes turning down with horror to look at his grey, sodden torso.
For a moment, Maxwell’s heart leapt; then Achan looked up again, fixing him with those burning red eyes. His face was cold, his expression completely blank apart from the faint traces of a sneer caressing his lips.
“Waste of a fine vintage,” he said drily. Maxwell hurriedly shuffled backwards, still prone, as Achan took a menacing step towards him. His back hit the wall, and as his foe loomed above him, he knew this was the end.
Then Lydia leapt, screaming, onto Achan’s back, arms clasped tight around his neck.
“Leave him alone, you monster!” she shrieked.
Achan snarled, his snide sneer gone. He whirled around, reaching a long arm behind him to wrench Lydia from her precarious perch. He grabbed her around her neck and lifted her furiously struggling form into the air.
“I tire of this pantomime,” he said. She grabbed furiously, futilely, at the fingers that were clasped around her throat. Her skin began to turn white as he squeezed out her last breaths, his red eyes expanding to fill her vision, twin flames burning her away. Twin flames that flared up as he savoured his kill, growing into raging infernos as she struggled and choked.
Flames that disappeared, as Achan screamed in sudden pain and impotent fury. He released Lydia, who collapsed onto the floor, coughing and retching as tears flooded from her eyes, and his hands flew to his chest. Maxwell’s face appeared behind his shoulder.
“And here’s the curtain,” he said into the undead lord’s ear.
Achan grew rigid, face horribly contorted and shadows frantically flickering across his grey skin, and dissolved into chalky, off-white dust. The last thing to fade was the red glow from his monstrous eyes. Darkness fell once more.
Lydia looked at Maxwell as he knelt down to help her. “How...we were all out of water... How did you...?”
He put his left hand in hers, and with his right he held up the chain around his neck, a chain from which hung, suspended, a small silver cross. “I thought, if holy water worked, then, well, a holy symbol might be worth a try,” he told her, half a grin on his face. He let the cross drop and put his hand to her cheek. Louise had fallen silent; there was no sound, now, except for Maxwell and Lydia’s breathing, no sight for either of them except for the other’s face.
“I’m just so glad you’re – ” he began, and her lips met his. For a moment, songbirds trilled their sweetest songs and the sun shone brightly down on the pair; then a sad little coughing sound bought them back to reality. Breaking the kiss, they hurried over to Crichton, who lay in a spreading pool of blood in the corner of the cellar. They knelt on either side of him, Maxwell supporting his head; Lydia pulled back his black jacket and then stopped, recognising there was nothing she could do. Crichton saw the look in her eyes.
“Well, milady, it appears as though my tenure is coming to an end,” he whispered, each word an effort. He started to cough again, weakly. Lydia replied, her voice almost as halting as his as tears closed up her throat.
“It’s OK, Crichton. Don’t try to talk. It’s all going to be...”
Crichton’s mouth quirked, though the rest of his face remained stoic as ever. “I hate to disagree with you, milady, but I fear that will not be the case.” His eyes fluttered, and Lydia raised her hand to his cheek; Maxwell looked on, unable and unwilling to intrude on their private moment of farewell.
“You’ve been the perfect servant, Crichton, for as long as I can remember. I think that Lydia would be appropriate at this moment in time.”
Crichton smiled, properly this time. “Lydia,” he said. His eyes closed for the last time.
Maxwell held the woman he loved as she sobbed in his arms.
We have, dear reader, at last reached the end of our tale. Now it remains only to tie up loose ends, to create the finality that can only be found in stories and in death. Lydia and Maxwell, liberated by their shared experience and their newfound love, eloped to Vienna, where Maxwell got a lucrative job as supernatural adviser to the King of Austria, and Lydia opened a small art gallery with a studio overlooking the canals where she could sit and paint for as long as she wanted. Louise, having discovered the delights of parties (and free-flowing alcohol), soon became famous for hosting the most lavish, and most fun, social gatherings in the whole of Surrey; and the local builders, plasterers and carpenters received a timely and substantial boost to their income for the year after making the necessary repairs to Tunnicliffe Manor. Louisa was buried in the local village church, as per Tunnicliffe tradition; Harold’s body was donated to science, where it was studied by a young Genevan named Victor Frankenstein. No-one ever found out what happened to it after that.
Crichton’s body was buried in the grounds of Tunnicliffe Manor, in a small plot of land that was, on Lydia’s orders, to be kept well-tended for as long as the Tunnicliffe’s lived at the manor. The epitaph on his headstone read: “Here lies Crichton, the greatest butler there ever lived. Rest easy, for your duty is done.”
In the deepest and darkest depths of Hell, Lord Achan once more awaits his chance to rise up into the world and gain revenge on those who have wronged him.